Assembly elections

The BJP saw Tripura as a significant ideological battle to win, not just a game of numbers

It exploited, to its advantage, the many discontents that had brewed during 25 years of Left rule.

From the start, it was apparent that Tripura was an important battle for the Bharatiya Janata Party to win. Its campaign started early, with large rallies being held in the state as far back as March 2017. National leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, were parachuted down several times into the tiny state.

With Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh turning saffron, Tripura became another crucial stop for the BJP as it spread across the North East. But the intensity of the campaign suggests something more than mere numbers was at stake. The BJP saw this as a significant ideological win, a rightwing party triumphing over a long-running communist government with a popular chief minister.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s mobilisations were visible on the ground, paving the way for the BJP. But on the eve of the elections, saffron politics was not the burden of the BJP’s campaign. While it exploited old social fissures between Tripura’s tribal and non-tribal populations, the BJP pitched itself as the party of development, holding the keys to the Central coffers in Delhi. It also took aim, quite deftly, at the Left’s weaknesses.

So after 25 years of Left rule, Tripura has swung decidedly Right. The BJP looks set to form government in the state along with its ally, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura. It is a change reminiscent of the Trinamul Congress’s sweep of West Bengal in the 2011 assembly elections, which ended 34 years of the Left Front.

A map of discontent

The initial stages of counting in Tripura indicate that the saffron party has stormed the red bastion. From no seats in the 2013 assembly elections, it won a majority this time. From a vote share of 1.54% in 2013, it has surged to 42.9%, according to the Election Commission figures on Saturday evening. The Congress, which emerged as the main opposition in Tripura after assembly elections of 2013, has virtually disappeared. So has the Trinamul Congress, which once had ambitions of spreading beyond Bengal into Tripura.

A look at the electoral map suggests the alliance led by the BJP has spread itself across the state, making gains in various constituencies and vote bases. For instance, it has made headway in the state capital of Agartala and surrounding areas, once the stronghold of the Congress. These are largely urban constituencies where Bengalis form the majority. But its ally, the Indigenous Peoples’ Front of Tripura, also shows a surge in tribal areas which fall under the Tripura Autonomous District Council Area. The tribal party, which won no seats and just 0.46% of the vote share in 2013, looked set to win eight seats out of the nine it contested, as of Saturday evening, cornering at least 7.6% of the votes cast.

It is a map that reflects the many discontents of Tripura. This election is a vote against the Left as much as it is a vote for the BJP.

End of Sarkar raj

Chief Minister Manik Sarkar’s 20-year tenure has now ended. India’s “poorest” chief minister, who is known for his personal austerity, leaves behind a mixed legacy.

Many in the older generation credit him with pulling the state out of the conflict which roiled Tripura in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2015, Sarkar managed to get the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, a Central law which gives the army powers to open fire and to search and arrest with little judicial accountability, withdrawn from the state. It was counted as one of the major successes of his government.

But the Communist Party of India (Marxist), comfortably ensconced in Tripura for over two decades, must be held guilty of not paying heed to the growing roster of grievances against it. In a state with some of the highest unemployment figures in the country, it did not address the growing restiveness of a new generation with few jobs and opportunities. The Left’s old rhetoric of being a pro-poor party did not find resonance with this pool of young voters while the BJP’s promise of development and social mobility, of jobs and growth appealed to it.

In its last years, Sarkar’s government was swamped by allegations of corruption, which became the launchpad for the BJP’s attack. It wooed thousands of teachers done out of government jobs after the Supreme Court declared that appointments made by the Left were invalid. It also raised the issue of the Rose Valley chit fund scam, which spread to Tripura from Bengal and left thousands of investors in the lurch.

The tribal vote

In the autonomous district council areas, Sarkar ignored the warning signs of tribal discontent. The Left had enjoyed substantial support here, but the last few years saw a steady erosion in this vote base. Sarkar’s carefully crafted narrative of social cohesion seems to have come undone in the past few years. In the state’s tribal belt, the old faultlines between the so-called indigenous population and Bengali-speaking residents, often branded as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, have grown pronounced once again.

It explains why the Indigenous Tribal Peoples’ Front, once a non-entity, is set to win eight out of the nine seats it contested. The party is believed to have links to separatist militant groups, which demanded a tribal state of Twipra carved out of Tripura.

As it tied up with the tribal party, the BJP struck a careful balance, showing sympathy for tribal demands but playing them down when it campaigned in constituencies dominated by Bengalis. It also managed to project the Left as a party which stood for Bengali interests. During the election campaign, Himanta Biswa Sarma, the BJP’s election strategist in the North East, suggested that Sarkar head to one of three destination: Kerala, the only other state in which the Left remains relevant, Bengal or Bangladesh.

Sarkar may blame the BJP for sharpening local insecurities and separatist demands but his government fell short in vital ways. First, it was unable to dispel tribal anxieties about being “swamped” by outsiders, especially Bengali settlers, and driven out of their ancestral lands. Second, it did not pay heed to a growing sense of neglect in these areas. Tribal voters are bitter about the obvious disparities with non-tribal areas, which, they claim, have cornered any development that may have taken place during the Left’s tenure.

These were failures that proved to be fatal for the Left in Tripura.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.